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Friday, July 25, 2008

Flooding forced UI writing programs to become improvisational artists

Most writers are fastidious about the details: They choose every word carefully, and their works are developed through a long, laborious process of revision and refinement through multiple drafts. But this summer the University of Iowa International Writing Program (IWP) and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival were transformed into improvisational artists as the Flood of 2008 invaded the campus.

The IWP was primed to host a U.S. State Department "Between the Lines" program, a two-week workshop for a dozen teenage Arab writers, who were already en route to the UI when the flood submerged roads and bridges, making Iowa City virtually inaccessible and forcing the UI to close.

With only one day before the Arab delegation was due to arrive at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, the IWP's staff scrambled to find an impromptu solution. Lisa Yun Lee, director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and co-chair of Young Chicago Authors, rose to the occasion, setting aside space for classes at the museum and securing last-minute housing in a University of Illinois at Chicago residence hall. (Read the UIC account at

"We couldn't have gone mobile without John Knoll at Fleet Services and Jerry Miller at UI Equipment Rental, both of whom pitched in and helped us even as everything was shutting down," explains IWP Associate Director Hugh Ferrer. "And we wouldn't have had any place to go without the generosity of the good people in Chicago, Lisa Lee chief among them. Everyone we phoned that day phoned their friends to try to find us a solution."

IWP Director Chris Merrill adds, "I am grateful to the University of Illinois-Chicago for their hospitality, and to the staff of the IWP, which on 24 hours notice created an entirely new, and very successful, program in Chicago. Who would have thought that this crisis would have created such an opportunity for some very talented and hard-working individuals to shine? But they did."

That was only the beginning of the IWP's challenge. The flood invaded the Iowa House hotel in the Iowa Memorial Union, making it uninhabitable for the 32 writers from all over the world who are scheduled to arrive for a three-month residency this fall -- the heart of the annual IWP activities.

Accommodations have now been secured for all the visiting writers: in guest houses, bed and breakfasts, rooming houses and even a former sorority house. To help foster the sort of community that comes naturally when the writers are housed together, the IWP is making changes at its Shambaugh House headquarters to provide a communal gathering space with wireless Internet.

The Iowa Summer Writing Festival staff spends 10 months each year organizing for its two months of summer workshops - hiring faculty, securing space, setting schedules and attracting writers of all ages, who travel to Iowa City from all parts of the world.

With classrooms flooded, food service closed down and travel disrupted, the festival was forced to cancel all but one of its June sessions, and scramble to locate different spaces for every aspect of the July workshops -- registration, readings, housing, special presentations and closing banquets -- while also organizing two additional "make-up" sessions at the end of July.

"I sent out an SOS to everyone who was scheduled to teach this year, and those who were available stepped up," says Amy Margolis, the UI Writers' Workshop alumna who is the director of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. "Fortunately, around here you don't have to go far.

"The folks at classroom scheduling kept us quite literally a step ahead of the water. We just kept moving up, up, up. The rescue was coordinated by our colleagues at the Center for Conferences, who, for an event disaster, are akin to the Red Cross.

"We had less than two weeks to lay in the infrastructure that it typically takes 10 months to build. Our incredibly enterprising colleagues across campus paddled out and pulled us in. These are the times when you're damned grateful the people you work with are friends."

When the June sessions were canceled, several international guests had already arrived and were stranded in Iowa City. "We had three women from India who were stranded here with us, a young man from the Philippines, a woman from Poland, and a compulsive talker from Serbia who chased me all over the creation with offers of help," Margolis says.

"We gathered them, and a few others who were stranded here from elsewhere in the United States, up into a cross-genre workshop that was led by Sands Hall, who arrived here to teach for us just before the UI closed. The group was taken in by 126, a local restaurant, who gave them their upstairs space. They gave each other a reading at the end of the week, and it took your breath away, the bounty of these displaced writers who had come together this way. For me, it was the highlight of the disaster."

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STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACTS: Winston Barclay, Arts Center Relations, 319-384-0073 (office) 319-430-1013 (cell),